Speculating about the future of Saudi Arabia has become one of the more common guessing games among Middle East experts. Since the onset of the Arab uprisings in 2011, if not before, doubts about the political stability of Saudi Arabia have been raised with almost metronomic frequency. The concern is understandable: Saudi Arabia is a major energy supplier and any sustained interruption caused by internal turmoil would likely roil markets around the world. Serious unrest, moreover, could undermine stability elsewhere in the Middle East and cause profound alarm throughout the Muslim world over the security of holy sites.
Yet for all the confident assertions that it is just a matter of time before the kingdom succumbs to internal unrest and even regime collapse, Saudi Arabia has remained one of the most stable countries in the region. It has weathered a major downturn in global oil prices and reduction of state revenues, managed what could have been a contentious royal succession, and prosecuted a costly military intervention in neighboring Yemen without facing major domestic blowback, all contrary to the expectations of many outside observers. So is Saudi Arabia the proverbial dog that regularly barks but never bites? Or is there only a false sense of calm for now, before the underlying risks of instability suddenly materialize? Put differently, how worried should we be?
These questions are best addressed less by trying to divine what is happening inside Saudi Arabia, which is opaque to outside scrutiny, than by relying on what social scientists know about the causes of political instability and regime change, particularly in nondemocratic states. The bulk of commentary about Saudi Arabia’s stability falls into the former category. Much of it casually asserts that Saudi Arabia could be destabilized either from below, by rising popular unrest, or from above, by debilitating rivalries within the ruling royal family, with little or no discussion of which scenario is more likely. What might trigger such events and how they could play out, including what the “day after” would look like, are likewise rarely examined.
A Fragile State?
Analysts assessing the susceptibility of states to political instability often examine a basket of “risk factors” generally believed to be associated with the onset of such events. These factors include potential economic, social, and political sources of stress, as well as the capacity of the state to manage potential internal challenges or external shocks , including the loyalty of internal security forces, cohesion of the leadership, and the state of the nation’s coffers.
Individual states’ risk factors are often quantified and totaled up to reach an aggregate vulnerability score; that, in turn, can be used to rank them against other countries. The results for Saudi Arabia using this approach have been quite consistent in recent years: its overall level of risk has grown, but the situation is by no means critical.
For example, the latest Fragile States Index in 2017, a commonly cited assessment of weak and unstable states produced by the Fund for Peace, a nongovernmental organization, ranked Saudi Arabia 101st out of 178 countries.
Similarly, the World Bank’s index of political stability and absence of violence, one of six indicators it tracks in two hundred countries for its World Governance Indicators project, ranked Saudi Arabia in the twenty-eighth percentile in 2015. From 1996 to 2015, Saudi Arabia’s average score was -0.31, with -2.5 classified as weak and 2.5 strong.
The OECD’s 2016 “States of Fragility” report also classified Saudi Arabia as falling in the “moderate political stability range.” Analyses carried out by commercial risk assessors reach a similar conclusion.
Although these risk indicators can be considered reassuring, they do not entirely dispel the concern that unanticipated events might suddenly coalesce to destabilize Saudi Arabia. Regimes that outwardly seem stable or appear to maintain a vise-like grip on power have collapsed in the past, after all, with little or no warning. The Middle East is no exception. For example, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria were not considered particularly unstable prior to the Arab Spring according to the leading indices of state fragility, yet all were subsequently wracked by violent conflict. So what are the most plausible future scenarios for Saudi Arabia?
There are three broad ways in which autocratic regimes can be toppled: popular rebellion, coup, or external coercion. For Saudi Arabia, the latter is the least likely. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s principal adversary, does not have the capacity to bring about regime change, though it could potentially stir up unrest in the predominantly Shia communities of the kingdom’s Eastern Province and in neighboring Bahrain and Yemen. Such unrest is unlikely to ever pose an existential threat to the kingdom, but in combination with other challenges, it could become more than a nuisance.
A military coup also seems unlikely. The frequency of this kind of regime change has fallen since the 1960s, when almost 50 percent of all autocrats lost power in this manner, and Saudi Arabia is not a country prone to coups; the last known attempt occurred almost fifty years ago, and the distance between Saudi Arabia’s three main urban centers would make it hard for a military cabal to quickly seize control. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s security forces are not under a single command authority; they take direction from different members of the royal family, an additional challenge to any would-be coup plotters.
Decentralized command, however, does mean that a contested royal succession could turn violent. The prospect is not so far fetched, especially if rumors of discontent within the House of Saud about the growing power and influence of Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman’s son and the deputy crown prince, are to be believed. At the young age of thirty-one, his growing portfolio of responsibilities, which ranges from defense minister to head of the economic council, has been gained at the expense of more senior members of the royal family, reportedly causing considerable resentment. Speculation has also grown that he could be elevated further and become King Salman’s designated successor before the king, who is eighty-one and not in the best of health, dies. That could cause further divisions within the royal family and even be resisted.
Whether a future succession crisis turns into something more serious will likely hinge on the success of recent domestic reform initiatives conceived by the deputy crown prince to diversify and expand the Saudi economy in the hope of raising living standards over the next ten to fifteen years. The road map for achieving this was laid out in the Vision 2030 statement and the associated National Transformation Plan. His goal is to develop sectors of the Saudi economy such as defense, retail, and renewable energy, and the private sector in general, so that the country is not so heavily dependent on oil and gas, which account for more than 50 percent of its gross domestic product. The plans also call for reductions in state subsidies to lessen their burden on the budget. A new sovereign wealth fund has been created to support national investments, which are expected to get a major infusion from the upcoming partial public offering of Saudi Aramco, the massive, state-run oil company.
These are ambitious plans to transform the Saudi economy and, by extension, the longstanding compact between citizens and the state, which has more or less guaranteed welfare through government employment and subsidies. Not surprisingly, whether the plan will ever be realized. Whether the reforms will generate enough new jobs to absorb the expected rapid growth in Saudi Arabia’s working-age population is uncertain. The National Transformation Plan calls for the creation by 2030 of six million new jobs, a figure that far exceeds anything that has been previously accomplished and does not take into account potential female entrants into the workforce. The private sector would have to not only expand greatly, but also hire predominantly Saudi nationals rather than foreigners, which would also be unprecedented.
Over the same period, Saudi households will be asked to adapt to the loss of generous subsidies. Initial plans to cut back the perks given to government employees, who make up two-thirds of the total population, have recently beensuspended, presumably because of the resentment they have generated. Popular anger could grow if members of the royal family are not seen to be tightening their belts as well. Despite recent austerity measures, the Saudi royal family seems to have not altered its spending habits in a significant way. Similarly, with changing demographics, the youth unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia is at nearly 30 percent and expected to increase in the coming years; half of the population is under the age of twenty-five. With jobs limited and the youth population educated and well connected—93 percent of Saudi nationals are online and 2.4 million of them are active on Twitter, accounting for nearly half of its active users in the Arab region—the possibility of organization and revolt exists. The greater transparency requirements associated with the Aramco public offering could exacerbate such grievances by exposing how much the royal family has benefited from oil and gas revenue.
These fiscal and economic challenges will presumably grow more acute if global energy prices do not recover or even fall, as well as if external security challenges impose additional financial burdens on the state. In short, the internal situation could become volatile should several plausible developments coalesce into a “perfect storm” that could lead to growing unrest and open challenges to the royal family. Whether such challenges succeed will hinge on the cohesion of the ruling elite. Indeed, the Political Instability Task Force (PITF), which is supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to carry out assessments for the U.S. government, considers this factor to be by far the most important determinant of whether ruling regimes succumb to internal political challenges.
Although a failure of the National Transformation Plan represents the single greatest risk to Saudi Arabia, the possible effects of its success should also not be overlooked. Paradoxically, an expansion of a Saudi middle class that is not tethered to state largesse could lead to increased demands for political reform. As the PITF suggests, autocratic regimes undergoing partial reforms to more democratic systems are especially vulnerable to fracturing.
The Bottom Line
There is no compelling reason to be concerned that Saudi Arabia will experience serious political instability or regime collapse in the next year or two. There are, however, reasons to worry about what will happen later. The success of planned domestic economic reforms is by no means ensured, and the coincidence of several plausible developments—a potentially divisive succession process, a worsening external environment, and growing unrest at home, including an upsurge of terrorist attacks from Saudi jihadis returning from foreign battlefields––could present a challenge that the ruling regime may not be able to manage. That would not necessarily mean that Saudi Arabia would go the way of Arab Spring countries, but the convulsions could still be debilitating. Nor would political instability and regime change necessarily bring about a more democratic Saudi Arabia. Indeed, in many instances the demise of one autocratic ruler or regime simply leads to the rise of another.
This expert brief was produced as part of the Center for Preventive Action’s contingency planning series, generously supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.